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Politics & Government

Fallout: Indiana Lawmakers Boo Colleagues Who Showed Up In African Dress

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Indiana, a disagreement among lawmakers that got very ugly continues to reverberate. Back in February, some Republican lawmakers booed and heckled their Black Democratic counterparts who were speaking on the House floor. Here's Mitch Legan of member station WFIU.

MITCH LEGAN, BYLINE: It'll likely be a while before State Representative Cherrish Pryor forgets this legislative session. In February, Pryor and her Black colleagues arrived at the Indiana Statehouse in traditional African garb to debate school choice. It ended in boos and heckling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STATE REPRESENTATIVE #1: Boo.

VERNON SMITH: Boo if you want to.

UNIDENTIFIED STATE REPRESENTATIVE #2: Please, please let the member speak. Let the member speak.

LEGAN: The bill in question would allow a township to leave the racially diverse South Bend school district for one that's overwhelmingly white. Black representatives had concerns it was discriminatory. Cherrish Pryor says some Republicans took offense.

CHERRISH PRYOR: We have had emotional discussions on a lot of issues, but nothing to the level of disrespecting another person.

LEGAN: Alvin Tillery directs Northwestern University's Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy and says since the Obama presidency, the conversation around race has often become coarser and more uncivil. The heckling incident reminds him of Joe Wilson's you lie moment during the 2009 State of the Union.

ALVIN TILLERY: Sadly, Black and minority legislators, particularly women, seem to be the targets of this kind of bad behavior.

LEGAN: There are 150 Indiana state legislators. Fourteen are Black, and a handful are Hispanic. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, and all but one GOP legislator is white. Tillery says this is largely replicated across the country.

TILLERY: It's a huge problem. Minority citizens - Black, Latino, Asian - are more likely to contact representatives that look like them. They're more likely to have a higher level of trust. Historically, minority populations haven't received very good representation from white elected officials.

LEGAN: A 2018 study by the London School of Economics found that state legislators of both parties were less likely to respond to minority constituents. Elected Republicans, who tend to be white, did the worst. Minority leaders say when the party in power lacks diversity, their concerns often go unheard.

PRYOR: Until those particular issues arrive in the majority community - and then all of a sudden, what we say then becomes relevant and true.

LEGAN: For instance, Indiana didn't pass a hate crime law until 2019, after a synagogue in an Indianapolis suburb was vandalized. State Senator Greg Taylor and the Black Legislative Caucus had been pushing for one for most of the decade.

GREG TAYLOR: Not until there was actual damage to a property located in a Republican district did we come to the table with an option or some standard for hate crimes.

LEGAN: The state General Assembly did pass a significant police reform bill this session, but only after mass demonstrations for racial justice over the summer. And representation has an impact on the ballot box. Alvin Tillery points to Georgia.

TILLERY: If you have a legislature that either willfully or unwillfully sees these communities as either invisible or the enemy, you get a sort of policymaking that's tilted toward really punishing those communities.

LEGAN: In Indiana, Black Caucus members see this session as both productive and painful. They're hoping recent events at statehouses highlight the representation gap in state legislatures across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Mitch Legan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "TWO THOUSAND AND SEVENTEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.